2019-03-14 / Opinions

Book Review

The Radium Girls

A heart-rending account of heroic women, several really bad villains, a milestone in American history – this is The Radium Girls. It begins in 1917 in New Jersey as World War I was beginning for the United States. The Radium Luminous Materials Corporation watch-dial factory had recently opened and was hiring young women to work for good salaries painting dials on the watches.

Many of these women are profiled in the book, with pictures of their pretty, young, happy faces. The photos make their fate even more poignant as we read what happened to them. Radium was newly discovered and exciting, used in all kind of products, cleaning agents and cosmetics, toothpaste and food. The glow it cast was seen as beautiful. When the women who worked with it saw their skin aglow, they were thrilled, believing it added to their attractiveness.

It was many years later that its dangers were fully known. Meanwhile, demand for it increased as it was used in war materials, and the employees felt that they were contributing to the war effort. Scientists understood that there was much they didn’t know about this substance, and some were beginning to investigate its effects. If leaders in the radium industry realized that, they were swift to deny any adverse effects.

The dial painters were told not to waste any of the expensive chemical and were taught to lick their paintbrushes to make the tip small for accuracy. They were surrounded by it, even ate lunch at the tables where they worked. Not until much later, too late, was it realized that ingesting radium in this way caused their teeth and bones to absorb it and be destroyed, causing a long and painful death.

It was not only in New Jersey that this horror was taking place, but also in Illinois at another plant, with the same dreadful results for the women who worked with it every day. Author Kate Moore does not spare her readers any details about the decline and deaths of the young workers. Nor does she “pull any punches” about the company management who continued to deny any responsibility and the doctors who profited from the treatment that the victims had to have (which did not help). An exception to the neglect was Dr. Harrison Martland, who finally listened and observed and began to help. There are two lawyers who also became the heroes who finally got results, but it was unfortunately too late for many of the women.

Moore credits these brave workers who testified and those who finally helped them with eventually changing laws and attitudes. It’s a gripping story, available at the Mary Willis Library.

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